Yesterday I did an interesting thing when planning a get-together with some friends. I told them if they wanted to meet on the weekends that I could do Sunday, but not Saturday. After I sent that email I wondered to myself why I was okay missing the NFL but not college games. No, it isn’t because I am a Michigan fan- if the last few years are any indication it has been more painful to watch Michigan play than to watch Baltimore play. It’s not about the alma mater either- if you saw my office you would know I have as much allegiance to my city as my school, if not more. It isn’t even because of some pretend “purity” of the sport- I will get to that crock later in this column. And don’t get me started on the quality of play- the so-called great college QBs miss open receivers, make horrible mistakes, and if you watch a college game back-to-back with an NFL game you wonder how any of these players make the leap to the pros.
What is it about college football that makes it unique and draws people (like me) to shut down their Saturdays? What is it about college football that makes me want to tune out sometimes? This is a different kind of Free Kicks, so line up…
With players coming in and out and coaches constantly trying new and wildly inventive systems in order to win, it is a place of innovation and growth of the game that the NFL can not hope to duplicate. Yes, the West Coast offense has evolved in the NFL, but in that time the college game has given us Leach’s Air Raid, Rodriguez’s spread & shred (zone read), and Paul Johnson’s triple option, just to name a few, all while allowing traditional offenses like Stanford’s to flourish. This weekend’s Stanford-Oregon game will highlight this perfectly, with two deadly effective and utterly opposed offensive systems, one built on speed and misdirection and the other built on power and crisp execution.
When there is a new class of freshmen every year, new leaders being made, there are brand new stars and storylines every season. This year Cam Newton is becoming a star at Auburn, Nebraska is returning to glory, and players at every school are making a name for themselves. The fleeting aspect of their stardom can be jarring for fans after becoming comfortable with a player, but the constant evolution of a team keeps things fresh, excitement high, and there is a sense of a genuine connection. For whatever reason, these players chose to be at that school, and weren’t drafted or persuaded by a huge signing bonus (though I am not naïve to think there aren’t definite perks in some places). With 120 teams, there is no shortage of new faces and new teams coming out of the woodwork to either build a program or continue their dominance.
I love the NFL, don’t get me wrong. But for sheer entertainment purposes, you can turn on a college game between any schools and they are always battling for something- a MAC conference title, an historic rivalry, or just respect over an opponent that has prestige. The Baltimore-Pittsburgh rivalry is a good example. The main reason that rivalry has formed is because both teams have traditionally battled at the top of the conference. The Cleveland-Pittsburgh rivalry has taken a back seat even though the rivalry is much older because, well, Cleveland stinks. Washington always beats Washington State, but that doesn’t make that intrastate rivalry any less fierce. Ohio State has owned Michigan over the past 6 years, but the intensity of the rivalry is still there.
And then there are the drawbacks…
The Gordon Gekko
College football has definite flaws. There are the cupcake games that start the schedule, the mindless blowouts that definitely lack entertainment value, and of course the aforementioned sloppy play. Moreover, the whole garbage about this being a “pure” sport is ridiculous. Conferences make millions of dollars on the backs of unpaid athletes and then build national corporations off of it. Look, I am not one of those people who thinks that athletes should be paid, but how about this novel concept? Colleges and college-affiliated organizations should be non-profit entities, if not in form than in action- conferences should funnel any profits back to academic programs at universities, working to enhance the lives of students and the institutions as a whole. I know that bowl money and TV revenue is handed back to the universities, but the Big Ten has made it big business to put the bottom line ahead of anything else- history, geography, or even the wishes of its fans.
The Big Ten, or any conference for that matter is exactly like the commissioner’s office in the NFL, and the Presidents are the owners and they are entirely unchecked. There is no players association, no pie divided, no counterweight except the cries of fans that are so divided they are completely ineffective. The players don’t even matter except insofar as they can advance the product. So long as THEY don’t take money from anyone, they’re fine. It’s a crooked system built on greed and a failure to acknowledge that there are giant corporations being built on (almost) free labor, yet they claim the moral high ground. Don’t pay the athletes, but don’t pay the Jim Delany’s or Mike Slive’s of the world any more than they would get in the non-profit sector.
The Postseason (or lack thereof)
I will avoid rehashing the same debate over the lack of a playoff in Division 1 college football, except to make a couple of points. If people are concerned about cheapening the regular season, then why is the NCAA considering allowing teams with losing records into bowl games? It feeds into the Gordon Gekko part above. They make more money that way, even if they have to let a team into the postseason who couldn’t even make .500 after being handed cupcake opponents to start the season.
Moreover, what is the point of a sport if a team can enter the regular season and have NO shot whatsoever at winning the title? Why play in a league that is impossible to win? Assuming that three teams go undefeated in any given year- I am sidestepping the whole mid-major issue for now- they could all be great, all play excellent schedules, but only two will be able to play for the national championship. Why play the game at all? To win your conference? Great, I can go with that, but don’t even have a championship game in that case. Let people win their conferences and stick there, but it is patently dishonest to hold a contest of any kind where a team could be perfect and not get the chance to win the title. That doesn’t make college football special. It makes it absurd.
And yet this weekend I will be squeezing in as much college football as I can on Saturday, and catch whatever game is on on Sunday. The allure of kids hoping to make a name for themselves, of brilliant, unafraid coaches creating incredible schemes to take down superior opponents, and the fact that it all at the end of the day truly matters will draw me to the games. Whether the money goes to the right people doesn’t really matter when the band starts playing and the school’s flag is raised, it just matters between Sunday and Friday. The NFL is great and I love the professionalism of it, the best players at the highest levels of competition. But college football, for all the errant passes and missed assignments, has a combination of changing talent and ancient traditions that makes it utterly unique and truly great.